On Aug. 28, 1963, Pat Tanner sat just as millions of other Americans, glued to a television watching Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech to more than 200,000 civil rights supporters during the March on Washington.
Tanner later joined King on another historic march from Selma to Montgomery, but she said it was in that moment 50 years ago today, as she saw protesters of all different races gathered at the Lincoln Memorial listening to the Civil Rights icon speak, that she knew racial equality was truly possible.
“When you see all that, you’ve got to have hope,” the 66-year-old Canton native said. “And then you hear this man with beautiful oration of ‘I Have a Dream,’ you’ve got to have hope.”
Although King’s words that day were spoken 700 miles away from Cherokee County, Tanner said the meaning hit close to home.
“Living here in Canton, in Cherokee County, was no different in a lot of respects than living in a lot of Southern areas,” Tanner, a former Canton City Council member, said. “We had our ‘white’ and ‘colored’ water fountains; we had our ‘white’ and ‘colored’ entrances; we had instances where you couldn’t go in stores and try on shoes or clothes.”
Much has changed since those days of segregation, but Tanner still recalls the days when being both African-American and a Cherokee resident wasn’t an easy combination.
“I lived it,” she said. “It’s a part of my history.”
Tanner’s mother, Ozella Stevenson Tanner, 86, also lived through decades of inequality in Cherokee County, after moving to Canton in 1942. And when racial tensions came to a boil in Cherokee one year after the March on Washington, she found herself all too close to the conflict.
Unrest in Canton
On Aug. 11, 1964, four young men attempted to integrate the Canton Theater on Main Street, and white residents of the city weren’t happy about the coming progress.
The Atlanta Constitution wrote at the time of the incident that the young men were met with much resistance that night.
“The Negroes were peppered with eggs and tomatoes from a crowd of about 700 white persons as they came out of the theater on Main Street,” the Constitution’s Aug. 12, 1964, article stated.
Ozella Tanner said at the time, non-white residents were only allowed to sit in the balcony at the theater.
When word spread that the young men were trying to change the policy, she said she knew something bad might happen and jumped in her car to go pick them up.
As she drove through downtown Canton, she saw that she was right to be worried.
“They were lining the street,” Ozella Tanner said of the hundreds of angry white residents unhappy with the protest. “They threw rocks at my car as I was driving through town.”
But none of the rocks hit, and she said she drove the young men back to her home in the Stumptown area of Canton.
The near-riotous situation ended when the Canton Police Department issued an 8 p.m. curfew for the city and the crowds disbursed. But before the night was over, members of the crowd had overturned a car, a 10-foot glass window had been knocked out of the Canton Drug Store, and the Georgia State Patrol sent in reinforcements to keep the situation contained, the Constitution reported.
During that same summer, several restaurants in Cherokee County and other establishments were also integrated. But Pat Tanner said the fight to desegregate the county wasn’t without further issues. At one point, threats of violence against the city’s non-white population seemed so real that African-American men took up arms and posted themselves at entrances to their neighborhoods to protect the others in case of an attack, Tanner said.
Ozella Tanner remembers the incident at the Canton Theatre as likely the worst in terms of racial tensions in Cherokee County’s history. But even on that night with hundreds of angry residents lining the streets and threatening violence against the city’s outnumbered non-white residents, no one was injured.
The civil rights protest Pat Tanner would join the following year, however, didn’t end as easily.
From Selma to Montgomery
Around the time of the desegregation movement in Cherokee County, Pat Tanner moved to Concord, N.C., to attend school at Barber-Scotia College.
While at college, Tanner said she was one of the students at the mostly African-American institution who were recruited to take part in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to support voters’ rights in the state.
Tanner said with the hope she felt during the March on Washington, she never would have dreamed that the march, also led partly by King, would have been necessary.
“In ’63, you had the March on Washington, and you had the famous “I Have a Dream” speech given by Dr. King,” she said. “And then two years later, you had people fighting for their lives because they wanted the right to cast a ballot.”
Tanner joined in with the protesters there for several days but wasn’t present to see one leg of the March end in infamy on Blood Sunday, when police reportedly turned against about 600 protesters.
But before going back to college in North Carolina, she did cross paths with King when the civil rights leader came to speak with the supporters of the movement at a church near Selma.
“I actually got to see him,” she said. “Although, I didn’t get to be one-on-one, he did speak to us and gave us encouraging words.”
With King’s words of encouragement in tow, Tanner said she and the other protesters marched on toward Montgomery.
Along the way, she recalls singing “freedom songs” with the others and sleeping in yards or fields or in whatever spot could be found.
She also remembers how difficult it was to heed King’s instructions to avoid becoming violent with the opposition to the desegregation movement.
“You really had to maintain yourself to remain non-violent with everything that was being hurled at you,” Tanner said. “People tried to intimidate you.”
Others, though, helped the civil-rights activists as they passed by, giving them food and water, she said.
After two days, Tanner said she had to pack up and go back to North Carolina for school. But even those two days made a lasting impact.
“It was an experience that I will carry to my grave,” she said.
50 years later
With half a century passed since the civil rights movement began to make strides, Pat Tanner said Cherokee County is now “completely different.”
“We have a lot of people who nowadays don’t see color,” she said. “They see the individual.”
Tanner later proved change had come to Cherokee County when she was tapped for the Canton City Council, becoming the first African-American to be elected to that council.
Even though many barriers have come down, Tanner said there is further to go.
“You still have some of (the same problems) today,” she said.
But things can change permanently, she said.
“I’m looking at (this generation for the change),” Tanner said. “And hopefully, it’ll be a different world and Martin Luther King’s dream will come true and people will be judged by the content of their character, versus the color of their skin.”